Write, right your life

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I just got off the phone with a woman who’s thinking about starting to write her life story. But she’s not sure she should spend time on herself, because as she put it, “I haven’t done anything that unusual. How can I write a whole book about nothing?”

Something I once told my college students came to mind. We were creating extended photo essays and the wide expanse of possibility had some of them frozen. I gave the woman on the phone today the same homework I once gave my younger students.

Write down what you believe is important to you.
Then go about your day.
Focus on a few things that catch your attention. Study them. Jot them down. Photograph them if you like.
Return to your belief list.
Maybe you really aren’t doing anything unusual. Or, a
re you putting your body where your heart insists your values lie?
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until your experiences align with your beliefs, or you have a plan to make that so.
This is all you need to do and everything important to write, right your life.

I’m sharing the prompt with you because in America, in September, 2020 it seems essential to be intentional with our actions. Of course the idea of writing a personal belief statement isn’t original. There are religious creeds, artist’s statements, and political movement manifestos. All are essentially statements that influence, or reflect a person’s behavior, their lives.

One of the most beloved and enduring public declarations of this practice is collected at “This I Believe: A public dialogue about belief – one essay at a time.” On the site you’ll find thousands of entries from a wide range of well-known figures, yes, but the majority of these essays are from ordinary people trying to discover their beliefs through the action of writing. One of my favorites, “Thirty Things I Believe,” was written in 2009 by Tarak McLain in honor of his 100th day of kindergarten. Some of his beliefs are:

I believe everyone is weird in their own way.

I believe people should not give up.

I believe love is everywhere.

While writing a personal belief statement isn’t new, the idea of using a personal belief statement to organize and focus a life story, is unique to my story coaching approach. I’ve come up with a name for this type of project. “Write, Right My Life.” When I work with clients we aren’t strictly writing memoir, not straight forward autobiography. I’m helping humans focus on writing the life elements that show how each unique individual led, and is leading, their “right” life.

When people come to me, ordinary people who “haven’t done anything unusual,” it’s important  for us to discover together how “nothing” lives have really amounted to everything.

From a photo of an ice cream truck unfolds the story of the summer ritual of chasing ice cream trucks with siblings and parents, cousins and grandchildren. I believe in spending time with my family.

The way Saturday afternoon drum jam sessions reflect a lifelong obsession with music passed from grandmother to daughter to grandson. I believe I must make something beautiful every day.

The Polaroid photography scavenger hunts that are part of every road trip become one chapter on travel. I believe in paying attention to what is new.

Try writing out your personal manifesto. Focus on what you really believe. Then check in with your actions and see how aligned they are with your beliefs.

No harm in trying something. The worst that can happen is you waste an hour or less. At best, you will have found a way to focus on living each day your “right” way.

As for what I believe, here are a few things on my list:
I believe in anticipation and reflection.
I believe in trying again.
I believe in trying again and again and again after that.
I believe in myself.
I believe in you.
I believe in the deepest center of all humans there is a flicker of goodness which can flare and spread at any moment.

May you find a little time to write, right your life this week.
Catherine

A fall class offering

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Did you ever walk away from something you truly loved and feel a bit disoriented? After nine and a half years I quit my university teaching gig.

It’s a little soon to say if I regret my decision, but I’ll admit to floundering this fall.

I didn’t leave my job because I didn’t like it. The privilege of standing before a roomful of bright, kind, young people looking at me like I had something valuable to teach them, never ever got old.

And I didn’t lose my job. In fact, my evaluations were always strong and my contract was freely renewed each semester. I have an open invitation to return.

What I tired of was continuing to play a part in the nationwide trend in higher education to shift the role of teaching to part-time faculty who, at least at my university, receive no benefits and no more job security than a 15-week contract. One current study found that from 2003 to 2013, the use of adjunct labor increased from 52% to 60% at private universities and from 45 to 62% at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

At the same time, student loan debt has risen to over 1.5 trillion dollars collectively according to a June, 2018 article in Forbes: Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: a $1.5 Trillion Crisis.  “At private nonprofit colleges, average debt in 2012 was $32,300 (15% higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200).” Where does the money go?

It turns out, according to a recent study, savings which come from using adjunct labor are usually funneled into more student services and administrative expenses. Somehow I felt complicit in a cycle that feels usury.

To put an exact number to this trend, my last contract guaranteed me $4,830.00 for teaching one semester’s class. The university limits the number of courses any adjunct can teach: Two. So, I taught two courses for a total semester paycheck of $9,660.00, or $19,320 annually.

I stood in an elite private university classroom before 36 students for six hours a week, prepped and graded 36 students’ writings, and made myself available for office hours adding another 18 – 20 hours of work a week. Add a week of syllabus writing time. Add another week of finals grading. I was making roughly $28 an hour which is significantly more than minimum wage.

Each of the 36 students would pay the university about $5,000 for my class. Yes, you can do the math. The university earned about $180,000 on my labor each semester. No savings are passed to students.

Can I reiterate how much I loved my job?

I did have the opportunity to voice my concerns directly to the university president over a lovely mushroom soup and salmon lunch. He shrugged and said, in effect, it’s the same everywhere and until there are no more adjuncts to take the work – and in the humanities especially there’s an over-saturation – the situation won’t change. And besides he said, students care more about adding a lazy river to the pool than who teaches them.

So I walked away to decrease the adjunct pool by one whopping body.

I’m faced with tremendous amounts of free time. I feel a little fractured, to be honest.

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Finish poetry book:                 Check.
Send book to publishers:         Check times ten.

I’ve targeted 25 publishers for my recently completed manuscript, each with its own open submission timeframe. I’m on the tenth publisher. Four have rejected the book. Six are still pending responses. Fifteen have approaching deadlines.

In the meantime, every writer will say the best thing to do after you finish one big thing is to start a new project.

Since it’s fall, which has meant school begins for as long as I can remember, I’ve decided to take a class. One of my own: Composing Self. It’s a writing class I’ve taught many times, exploring how and why writers compose a specific identity through careful language selection. If I’m any good at this teaching thing, I should learn quite a bit.

Composing Self is a creative nonfiction course. I’ll write about myself, or write about another real human, within the context of the world, much like this blog post which blends the personal with facts and figures for larger context.

We exist in the real world. We have permission to speak.

Do you want to take this course with me?

If you’re intrigued with the prospect of having someone curate a reading list for you, and create regular writing prompts, send me note using the contact form at the right. There’s still time!

What’s the cost?

What do you think I’m worth? Pay me what seems fair when the class is over.
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~Catherine

ps: This passage written by James Martin, SJ in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everyone: A Spirituality for Real Life inspired me to include real salary numbers in my post, a move I’m certain I would have shied away from before reading the observation.

Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.

That’s why discussing salary is perhaps the biggest taboo in social settings: it’s the quickest way of ranking people and is society’s prime measure of our worth. Finding out someone else’s salary instantly makes you see the person in a certain light…

James Martin, SJ, in summary and comment upon Dean Brackley, S.J.’s concept of “Downward Mobility.”

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This is the same face as the image at the top of the post. Different angle. Different light.

Kalapaki Beach Sand Sculpture 1, 2, and 3
Photos by Catherine Keefe